- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — White-bearded Nazir Shah sifts through a pile of magazines for teenage girls.

“Look at what our sweet girls are suffering,” said Mr. Shah, a retired Afghan army colonel, poring over the letters pages. “These are real stories about girls who are suffering so much. Look — ‘My family’s choice of husband is driving me to suicide.’”

Mr. Shah has a special interest in the trials of Afghanistan’s young women. Six months ago, after being bullied by her in-laws too often, his 26-year-old daughter, Mallali Nurzi, soaked herself with gasoline and struck a match.

Alerted by her screams, Mallali’s baby daughter discovered her mother writhing in a ball of flame. By the time the fire was extinguished, Mallali was burned black all over. It took her 24 hours to die.

In a suicide note to her parents, Mallali explained why she had chosen such a horrific end. “Her husband’s family were treating her like an animal,” said Mr. Shah, tears trickling down his sunburned cheeks.

“Every minute of every day, she was fetching water, growing crops, looking after animals and children, cleaning the house. She was patient, but it was too much for her: She was educated and sensitive. She found it hard to live like a slave.”

Mallali was not alone in her suffering, nor in the agonizing way she chose to die. Anecdotal evidence suggests that several hundred young women burn themselves fatally in western Afghanistan every year.

A government mission sent to investigate the problem in Herat, the main city of western Afghanistan, reported that at least 52 young, married or soon-to-be-married women had burned themselves fatally in the city in recent months. The youngest was a 13-year-old bride-to-be.

Mr. Shah says he knows of more than 80 cases of self-immolation in western Farah province — where Mallali took her life — in the past two years. A niece of his was among the victims. “There is not a village in Farah where a young woman has not burned herself to death,” he said.

Self-immolation is a traditional form of female suicide in several Asian countries. It is an expression of despair, and its occurrence in Afghanistan seems to be rising dramatically.

“In our culture, women have always burned themselves, because they have always been so badly treated,” said Amina Safi Afzali of the Afghan Human Rights Commission. “But, this phenomenon was never as prevalent as it is today.”

Behind the increase, said Mrs. Afzali, is disillusionment among many educated Afghan women that the two years since the Taliban’s fall have brought little freedom. This is felt most keenly among former refugees in Iran, who had a freer life there.

Most of the female suicides recorded in Herat, near the border with Iran, were of educated women, including several nurses and teachers.

“There are many more pressures on young Afghan women today, because they have learned what freedom is from radio and television, but that is not what they have,” said Mrs. Afzali.

“In the past, every girl knew she belonged to the family, she existed only for her father or her husband. She knew she wasn’t free. Now, girls know they should have rights and they are prepared to burn themselves to show society that they do not have them yet.”

In Mallali’s case, she had attended high school in Kabul and completed secondary school in Iran before being married off to live in a remote village. For 10 years, she suffered abuse from her in-laws, too loyal to complain but ultimately too sensitive to endure it.

“Mallali knew what her rights were because she was from an educated family in Kabul,” said her father. “But in the village she had no rights at all. She must have been suffering terribly, because she wasn’t worried about the pain. She just wanted to die and be free.”

Afghanistan’s new constitution stipulates equal rights for men and women. But despite an increase in the number of girls attending school, most Afghan women have no more rights now than they did under the Taliban regime. Most of the country is not, in fact, controlled by the government, but by warlords as misogynist as the previous regime.

“Women in this country are in a very bad situation, with forced marriages, families selling their daughters to pay drug debts, women being beaten all the time,” said Suraya Sobah Rang, the country’s deputy minister of women’s affairs.

“We have to change these things in our society. But what society wants and what women want are two different things,” she added.

Herat’s warlord-governor, Ismail Khan, recently tried to face up to the fiery suicides in his city. In a televised visit to the burn ward of Herat’s main hospital, he met Shakiba, a 19-year-old bride burned over 90 percent of her body.

Roused for a whisper to the cameras, she said she had tried to kill herself after her family forced her to marry a man who was still living with his first wife, for a $7,000 dowry.

“My family was selling me and I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.

Not long after Gen. Khan’s visit, Shakiba died.

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